The Climate Inaction Conference

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Most heads of state aren’t even bothering to show up in Cancún. Ordinary people must step onto the stage of history to organize to force the change that we want to see and that is so urgently needed.

by Chris Williams

“If Cancún delivers nothing, or not much, then the UN process is in danger.”

So said Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, ahead of the UN-sponsored climate change summit taking place in Mexico through December 10.

The negotiations are known as COP-16, short for 16th Conference of the Parties. What does the “16” stand for? If you’re a freshman in college this year, you were probably alive, but still an infant, when the first international climate talks took place 16 years ago.

In other words, the world’s governments have been negotiating for more than half a generation. And what progress has there been in those intervening years?

Last century, on March 21, 1994, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into being; 194 countries signed on to it. Article 2 of the UNFCCC states that its ultimate objective, and that of related bodies, such as the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Conference of the Parties, is:

to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

In 1995, the IPCC released its Second Assessment Report, which stated in part:

The atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases, and among them, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), have grown significantly since pre-industrial times (about 1750 A.D.): CO2 from about 280 to almost 360 ppmv (parts per million by volume), CH4 from 700 to 1720 ppbv (parts per billion by volume) and N2O from about 275 to about 310 ppbv.

These trends can be attributed largely to human activities, mostly fossil-fuel use, land-use change and agriculture. Concentrations of other anthropogenic greenhouse gases have also increased. An increase of greenhouse gas concentrations leads on average to an additional warming of the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface. Many greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere — and affect climate — for a long time.

So we have known for a long time what has been going on and what the likely effects would be. Three things have happened over the intervening decade and a half: CO2 levels have now increased another 30ppm to 390ppm; the scientific consensus on the likely effects of this increase has sharpened, deepened and become even more worrying; and the politicians have done nothing about it even as global awareness, activism and concern with the issue has risen tremendously.

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The IPCC issued its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the year that its work was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. The report stated, “There is high agreement and much evidence that with current climate change mitigation policies and related sustainable development practices, global GHG emissions will continue to grow over the next few decades.”

If anyone was in any doubt about where this extremely rapid increase in CO2 levels due to business as- usual might lead, they only need to look at this summer’s heat wave and fires in Russia or the extreme monsoons that have devastated large areas of Pakistan.

These are only the most reported and devastating of recent unusual weather patterns. In August, a cloudburst over the town of Leh in Ladakh, northern India, killed at least 150 people and left hundreds missing and homeless as the deluge washed away the mountainside and much of the town. Ladakh is a high altitude desert and lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, so naturally, people don’t build houses there to withstand torrential rain. Perhaps now they will have to.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, May, June and July each were the hottest on record. In New York, for June through August, an astonishing and record-breaking 34 days exceeded 90 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. This came despite a cooler-than-usual start to summer. There are many other examples of regions that are unseasonably wetter, drier or hotter — 19 countries so far have set new temperature records for 2010.

As Jack Hedin, a farmer in Minnesota, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times:

The news from this Midwestern farm is not good. The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time, computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless…

Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life. A family farm like ours may simply not be able to adjust quickly enough to such unendingly volatile weather.

We can’t charge enough for our crops in good years to cover losses in the ever-more-frequent bad ones. We can’t continue to move to better, drier ground. No new field drainage scheme will help us as atmospheric carbon concentrations edge up to 400 parts per million; hardware and technology alone can’t solve problems of this magnitude.

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Given the overwhelming preponderance of scientific data pointing toward the growing likelihood of catastrophic climate change — as well as the fact that we are already seeing some of the effects — what is likely to happen at Cancún?

According to the New York Times:

After 16 years of annual climate treaty negotiations, negotiators heading for this meeting … are hoping not for progress, but merely to avoid going backward. Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s minister for climate action said: “What we will be working toward is that we should not start backsliding.”

So, the answer is … nothing. In fact, most heads of state, unlike COP-15 in Copenhagen, aren’t even bothering to show up. It’s becoming ever more apparent that rational arguments based on sound science aren’t going to persuade politicians to act.

In particular, regarding the U.S., it is also becoming ever more apparent that rhetoric aside, the Democrats and President Obama are equally uninterested in forcing through real change.

Many people who hoped for something different are waking up to the fact that, to quote W.E.B. DuBois, “It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream.” Even actually witnessing climate or environmental devastation — such as with the BP oil spill — doesn’t seem to provoke political leaders into action.

Therefore, as people who do want something to be done, we have to analyze why the response has been so pathetic, and what we can do to force a change in this state of affairs.

In the U.S., many environmental activists and liberals tend to attribute the failure to Obama’s misplaced but genuine attempts at consensus building, the intransigence of moderate Democrats, and the over-bearing power and influence of the corporations.

However, while all these reasons contain elements of truth, there is a more fundamental analysis that Marxists can provide. The underlying reason for the reactionary posture of U.S. politicians, regardless of party affiliation, against any and all meaningful action on climate change, and the creation of alternative energy systems, new infrastructure and millions of green jobs is structural.

The U.S. is in an impossible position: it is regressing economically in the face of new competition internationally, it is already behind in many areas of green technology, it has a chronically outdated transportation and housing infrastructure premised on never-ending cheap oil, and it is fighting two wars to maintain global hegemony. And this is taking place in the context of a global crisis of overproduction of goods.

Internationally, inter-imperial rivalry over diminishing resources in the context of a global economic recession has sharpened, as countries fight to maintain or extend the power of their own national set of corporations in hostile competition with all the others.

The Copenhagen conference could more aptly be described as a confrontation rather than a conference, as countries faced off across the diplomatic table. In the end, any possibility of an agreement was torpedoed by an unholy alliance of five heavy fossil-fuel users and carbon emitters led by the U.S. and including China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

This time around, in Cancún, the big governments reason that there’s no need to turn up because a deal on climate is so unlikely due to the depressed global economic situation and an incipient trade war. Showing up to a failing conference would just be bad PR. Forced austerity, not clean energy, is what’s on the table.

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Heads of state from Latin America who will likely attend, such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, are trying to force a change. In April, more than 30,000 activists gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the alternative Cochabamba Accords to Protect Mother Earth, which charted an alternative path to reducing carbon emissions, real sustainable social and ecological development, and the provision of development assistance to countries of the Global South most affected by climate change.

As reported on November 26 by Britain’s Guardian newspaper:

The first shots were fired in what are likely to be serious diplomatic clashes at the talks. In an interview with the Guardian, Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN accused rich countries of “holding humanity hostage” and undermining the UN. “[Their] deliberate attempts to sideline democracy and justice in the climate debate will be viewed as reckless and immoral by future generations,” he said. “I feel that Cancún will become a new Copenhagen if there is no shift in the next few days.”

In Cancún, the peasant and farmer organization Vía Campesina — in echoes of Che Guevara’s call for “One, two, many Vietnams” — has issued a call for “thousands of Cancúns” across the world and an International Day of Action on December 7 to coincide with mass farmers protests in Cancún.

In the U.S., activists need to take inspiration from these protests and cohere around a set of politics that will help move the environmental and climate justice movement forward. Given the resistance to change on the part of the U.S. ruling class, which fears losing even more ground to its competitors, even modest reforms to national energy, transportation and climate policy are unlikely without a mass movement for social and ecological change.

Such a movement needs to be resolute in its independence and principles, and will have to incorporate, for the first time since the late 1960s, tens of thousands of working-class people. Five key points need to be argued:

  • A strong, effective and reinvigorated environmental movement must campaign as much about social justice as it does about ecological justice. We cannot have one without the other.
  • This is not about sacrifice; rather, it is about fighting for a higher standard of living and quality of life.
  • The problem is the system itself. Therefore, the solution is structural and systemic, not individual, technical or market-based.
  • To make real headway, the movement must maintain and make absolute its independence from the Democratic Party.
  • We need to fight for intermediate, achievable goals while maintaining a vision of fundamental social change and a completely different, ecologically rational society based on cooperation, worker participation and real democracy.

On this basis, we can build a new and vibrant movement that can campaign for such things as a joint Labor and Climate Justice Conference to help formulate strategy and tactics or a national demonstration for the same.

We can’t wait in vain for President Obama or other politicians to do it for us. Ordinary people must step onto the stage of history to organize to force the change that we want to see and that is so urgently needed.

From Socialist Worker, November 30, 2010.
Chris Williams is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis


  • The UN COP process died at COP15. We couldn’t be sure that it was dead at the time, but it turned out that it wasn’t successfully revived and reformed, after all.

    Besides, the whole notion that 10 days is enough to make or break the whole climate — at negotiations between a jet set of officials — is a fundamentally unworkable. The bands of NGO representatives also can’t accomplish much on site, for these brief visits, either.

    If there are going to be international negotiations that are somewhat like these, then the process has to be fundamentally revamped, to make it productive at all — if that even can be done.

    In any case, what’s necessary is for common people to take more and more action, to get more and more engaged in making change.

  • Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Friends of the Earth International writes from Cancún:

    The document produced by the chair of the LCA [ad hoc working group on Long-term Cooperative Action] appears to be something quite at variance with what many delegates expected would be the outcome of the negotiations and work done since Copenhagen. The document that delegates are to debate is allegedly based on the “Copenhagen Accord” which some delegates insist was not an agreement at the end of COP15, but was merely taken note of by that conference. Questions are being asked why such a document would now be legitimised and made the foundation for serious negotiations expected to produce a fair and ambitious agreement at the end of the conference in Cancun?…

    The draft text circulated by the chair of the LCA puts forward the ambition that may lead to an aggregate global temperature increase of up to 2°C as opposed to proposals made by a number of delegations that the target should be between a 1° and 1.5° temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. A 2°C temperature increase would mean catastrophic alteration to some parts of the world, with Africa being particularly vulnerable.

    The text in question has also disregarded the demand by vulnerable nations that to ensure urgent and robust technology transfer for the purpose of mitigation and adaptation such transfers should not be governed by subsisting intellectual property rights regimes.

    Another sore point in the text is that the financial commitment proposed does not step up to the level of ambition needed to tackle the climate crisis and is even less serious than what was suggested by the so-called Copenhagen Accord.

    A coalition of civil society groups complained about the text from the chair of the LCA and also raised concerns about “the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, where the Chair of that track intends to propose his own text that will postpone adoption of legally binding emission reductions targets by the developed countries in Cancun, risks the expansion of accounting loopholes and replaces a legally-binding system with a voluntary pledge-based approach reflected in the Copenhagen Accord.”